Psalm 73:13–20; Numbers 26:1–24; Luke 1:5–25

Originally published 6/7/2016. Revised and updated 6/7/2018.

Psalm 73:13–20: Our psalmist despairingly observes the success of the wicked as he complains that having led a pure and God-centered life seems to have come to naught. A clean and sober life has yielded nothing but suffering:
But in vain have I kept my heart pure
and in innocence washed my palms
For I was afflicted all day long,
and my chastisement, each new morning.
 (13, 14)

Like so many who try to walk the narrow path of morality, he feels constrained, even trapped:
If I said, Let me talk like them.
Look, Your sons’ band I would have betrayed
. (15)

On the other hand, to attempt to become like the wicked and follow their practices leads only to inner moral torture:
When I thought to know these things,
it was a torment in my eyes.

But then, as he reflects on God’s larger plan he begins to realize that although they seem successful now, the wicked will indeed come to a bad end:
Till I came to the sanctuaries of God,
[I] understood what would be their end.

He realizes that the smug satisfaction of the wealthy and wicked is in reality the smooth path to destruction:
Yes, You set them on slippery ground,
brought them down to destruction
[The wicked will] come to ruin in a moment,
swept away, taken in terrors!

Our poet’s turn from despair to revelation is complete when he realizes that God will see it that justice triumphs in the end:
[It is] Like a dream upon waking, O Master,
upon rising You despised their image.
” (20)

Of course I still wonder if what our poet comes to understand—that the wicked will eventually pay for their sins—is really true all the time. We certainly see the some wicked people eventually met their comeuppance, but to me it seems like others just come out smelling like a rose. On the other hand, we cannot see inside them to really know their thoughts and fears. One thinks of the successful fashion designer, Kate Spade, who committed suicide last week. Outward appearances of success and wealth notwithstanding, she must certainly have been a tormented soul.

Numbers 26:1–24: Several plagues, battles, and sundry other life-threatening events have occurred since the last census of Israel, so God speaks both to Moses and Eleazar (who has taken Aaron’s place as high priest), “Take a census of the whole congregation of the Israelites, from twenty years old and upward, by their ancestral houses, everyone in Israel able to go to war.” (2) The purpose of this census is immediately apparent because enough years have passed that a new generation has come to the crucial age range: “from twenty years old and upward:” Needless to say, it’s crucial to understand Israel’s military strength before it heads into the numerous battles that await it.

The list begins with the tribe of Reuben, including, “The descendants of Eliab: Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. These are the same Dathan and Abiram, chosen from the congregation, who rebelled against Moses and Aaron in the company of Korah.” (9)  Even more remarkably, “the sons of Korah did not die” (11). Really? I was sure that following the failed coup d’etat, the earth had swallowed Korah’s entire family, which presumably would have included Korah’s sons. But here they are.

Our author/ accountants tell us that “the clans of the Reubenites; the number of those enrolled was 43,730.” (7) The count continues inexorably:
The descendants of Simeon by their clans” (12):  22,200
 The children of Gad by their clans” (15): 40,500
The sons of Judah:” (19): 76,500
The descendants of Issachar by their clans:” (25): 64,300.

Despite the plagues and battles, there is still a startlingly large number of Israelite men. We could estimate wives and children would easily triple the count. One suspects more census-taking awaits us in the reading tomorrow.

Luke 1:5–25: Unlike Mark, whose eponymous gospel opens with adult Jesus meeting adult John the Baptist, Luke begins his story by winding the clock back to before John’s birth with the heartwarming, even humorous, story of John’s father and mother, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Like Abraham and Sarah, they were old but had no children. [My view is that Luke is positioning them as parallels to Abraham and Sarah.]

In the first of many angelic visitations that Luke relates, Gabriel shows up and Zechariah “was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” (12) The first words out of the angel’s mouth are “Do not be afraid, Zechariah” (13a), which seem to be the opening words of every angelic visitation. This is a good reminder that cute Christmas decorations notwithstanding, angels must have been big and intimidating creatures, clearly not of this world. The angel loses no time telling Zecharaiah that “your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” (13b).  Gabriel then lays down some very specific rules regarding the son, whom is is to name John. This John will be an ascetic, but “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.” (16)

Reminding us of Sarah, who laughed at the news she would have a son, Zechariah famously doubts Gabriel with the usual very rational point that ““How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” (18). The angel Gabriel is less than pleased to hear this, curtly stating his bona fides: “I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” (19) Zechariah pays the price for his doubt: “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (20) Lesson: when there’s an angelic visitation, it’s wise to take them at their word. As we shall see, Mary reception of the angel Gabriel stands in stark contrast to Zechariah’s angelic visitation.

A humorous scene follows where the speechless Zechariah uses hand motions to convince the others in the temple that “he had seen a vision in the sanctuary.” (22) Speech was always of the greatest importance in that paperless world, and it’s fun to reflect on exactly what motions Zechariah had to use to convince people he’s been visited by an angel. We should try that sometime when we’re playing charades…

Elizabeth, on the other hand, is no doubter. In sharp contrast to her husband, she gives thanks that she will no longer be an object of shame in her culture: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” (25) Luke is certainly making it clear to his readers in this introductory story that acceptance of the gospel story he is about to relate is far superior to skepticism. In fact as far as Luke is concerned, skeptics should just remain mute.

Psalm 73:1–12; Numbers 24,25; Mark 16:14– Luke 1:4

Originally published 6/6/2016. Revised and updated 6/6/2018

Psalm 73:1–12: These verses are a detailed description of the qualities and even the physical characteristics of the wicked. The opening verses express the psalmist’s relief at his close call of having nearly become one of the wicked himself:
As for me, my feet had almost strayed,
my steps nearly tumbled.

The reason he almost fell in with them is simple—and completely consonant with that most human inclination to envy others—especially those who seem to be effortlessly cruising through life with ample resources:
For I envied the revelers,
I saw the wicked’s well-being.

Since human nature has not changed a whit since this psalm was written, he describes a 21st century affliction to a tee: we are obsessed with wealth and who has what. Why else would the media relentlessly publish lists of the wealthiest people in America in an unending variety of permutations? So too, our cultural obsession with celebrity. Their lives appear glamorous and worry-free compared to ours.

Our poet goes on to describe the specifics of our attraction to the wealthy in the detail that almost caused him to stumble:
For they are free of the fetters of death,
    and their body is healthy.
    Of the torment of man they have no part,
     and they know not human afflictions.” (4,5)

They appear to be above it all: paragons of “evolved humans” free of the ugliness, sickness, and desperation of daily life experienced by the hoi polloi.

But then, as he moves his poetic camera in for a close-up, we see that what looks attractive from afar is actually quite corrupt:
This haughtiness is their necklace,
outrage, their garment bedecks them.

This is a perfect description of know-it-alls (politicians, especially) who see themselves as morally superior and in a perfect description of a current president, full of the outrage that permeates everything in our culture from Facebook feeds to political stump speeches. Then, the picture turns even uglier in a memorable description of corruption affecting the physical body as the psalmist describes their true character perfectly:
Fat bulges around their eyes,
imaginings spill from the heart.
They mock and speak with malice,
from on high they speak out oppression
. (7, 8)

Then, even more strikingly, their corruption becomes consumption of the world’s resources:
They put their mouth up to the heavens
and their tongue goes over the earth
. (9)

The tragedy then, just as it is today with politicians, celebrities and especially men n powerful positions, is that the people are eager to hear—and believe—what they say:
Thus the people turn back to them,
and they lap up their words
. (10)

Is there a more perfect description of the crowds surrounding celebrities, politicians, and captains of industry?

In our material culture that rejects faith and believes the answers are found strictly within science and technology, those who claim there is no God see themselves as the masters of the universe: And they say,’ How could God know,
and is there knowledge with the most high?
” (11)

Alas, our poet sighs,
such are the wicked,
the ever complacent ones pile up wealth
. (12)

And thus, as we reflect on the infamous 1%, it is still is. But what will Jesus have to say to them on the day of judgement? He certainly gives us a clue in Matthew’s account of sheep and goats.

Numbers 24,25: Almost unbelievably, Balaam has retained his commission from King Balak to speak what God tells him to say. This time, our authors tell us, Balaam, “did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness.” (24:2) And what he sees as he looks out over the tents of Israel and speaks is the realization that Israel, as God’s chosen people, will indeed conquer neighboring tribes and nations:
    “God who brings him out of Egypt,
        is like the horns of a wild ox for him;
     he shall devour the nations that are his foes
         and break their bones.
         He shall strike with his arrows.” (24:8)

King Balak is beside himself at this point: “I summoned you to curse my enemies, but instead you have blessed them these three times.” (24:10) and tells Balaam to go home. But before he does, Balaam offers one last oracle that predicts the imminent demise not only of Balak’s kingdom, but of of all of Israel’s potential enemies:
“First among the nations was Amalek,
but its end is to perish forever.” (20) 

Balaam, having proniuced the words of God can only shake his head as he concludes, “Alas, who shall live when God does this?” (24:23) And with those final words of impending destruction, “Balaam got up and went back to his place, and Balak also went his way.” (24:25)

What are we to make of the story of Balaam? I think it’s an amazingly creative means for our authors to use an independent outside source like Balaam to validate Israel being led by God to conquer nations. Balaam was not an Israelite, but he clearly followed God and stood firm in his commitment to speak only what God told him to say. In this, he is the first prophet. That Balaam speaks what God says also tells us that God works though others than just the Jews. The groundwork is laid right here for the Good News to be spread among the Gentiles more than a thousand years after Balaam’s four oracles.

Meanwhile down at the Israelite campground: “the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab.” (25:2) Worse than that, “These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.” (25:2) God is mightily displeased and commands Moses to kill all those “who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.” (25:5) Not surprisingly plague commences

There is a particularly ugly scene where Phineas, Aaron’s grandson, seeing an Israelite with a Midianite woman impales the two with a spear. Aaron is impressed by this action which stopped the plague among Israel, but not before 24,000 people die. Aaron blesses Phineas, “It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.” (25:13)

What strikes me as odd here is that both the man and the woman are named, apparently because they are from leading families. The Israelite is “Zimri son of Salu” and the Midianite woman is, “Cozbi daughter of Zur, who was the head of a clan, an ancestral house in Midian.” (25:15) God promptly commands Moses to ““Harass the Midianites, and defeat them.” (25:17)

This is one of those places where we have a difficult time believing that God—this same God of love—commands all this bloodshed. To be blunt, I’m inclined to treat these stories as mythical.

Mark 16:14– Luke 1:4: Mark’s shorter ending features a terse Great Commission—”Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” (16:8b)— while the longer ending of the gospel restates it in more familiar terms, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (16:15)  But then in this version, Jesus goes on to add uncomfortable elaboration, beginning with a black and white statement, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. ” (16)

Things get weirder when Jesus elaborates, “these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (17, 18). These two verses have led, IMO, to all kinds of abuses such as snake-handling in churches to test who’s saved and who isn’t, as well as the rite of exorcism in the Catholic Church.  Happily, I’ve not heard of a church that encourages drinking poison, but who’s to say it hasn’t been tried. Of course the victims aren’t around to testify…

Frankly, I think the longer ending is a later add-on by an author or group dissatisfied with Mark’s original ending. I am very wary of drawing substantial theological conclusions from it.

In their ever-mysterious division of the readings, the Moravians carry us right into the beautiful opening introduction to the Gospel of Luke. Perhaps they want us to savor the juxtaposition between the rather disorderly conclusion of Mark’s gospel with the pristine opening verse of Luke’s: “many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us.” (1:1) It appears Luke has been reading (or hearing) some other gospels or eyewitness accounts: “just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” (2).

This motivates Luke to pick up his pen, “ I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,” (3) Luke’s purpose in writing is of course beneficial not only to Theophilus, but to all of us: “so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (4) And here we have a hint that perhaps these other gospels or stories may be somewhat suspect. (Such as the longer ending of Mark!) I think in this introduction Luke is aware of the various and often fantastic Gnostic gospels that began to be written and circulated around the same time he sat down to write Luke and Acts. Here was a man who wanted to set the record straight…

So, who is Theophilus? It’s a Greek name [“God-lover”] so we know this Gospel is written to a Gentile. We know from an autobiographical note in Acts that Luke is a Gentile, so this is a gospel written for Gentiles by a Gentile. Of course there are those who argue that Theophilus was not an actual person, but a literary construct, but in the end, that doesn’t matter. We are about to to embark on a telling of the Jesus story that in many ways is the most accessible of the gospels because Luke gives us details we don’t read elsewhere.



Psalm 72:12–20; Numbers 23; Mark 16:1–13

Originally published 6/4/2016. Revised and updated 6/5/2018

Psalm 72:12–20:  The first half of this psalm celebrates the majesty and overarching power of King Solomon. In the second half, our psalmist comes down a level of abstraction and describes the reasons why the king deserves these encomia. Solomon may be great and mighty, but like God himself, he cares about the poor and oppressed and bringing justice to them:
For he saves the needy man pleading,
and the lowly who has none to help him.

In short, Solomon practices what God has been commanding all along: that those in power must be  righteous and work tirelessly to bring justice to those who cannot get it on their own: the poor, the widows and the orphans.

To make sure we get his point, the psalmist recapitulates that the king’s key duties are to protect the poor from the rapacious schemes of the wealthy and powerful:
He pities the poor and needy,
and the lives of the needy he rescues,
from scheming and outrage redeems them,
and their blood is dear in his sight.
 (13, 14)

Here we are some three millennia later and our current leaders speak of these noble truths, but do they take effective action? There’s no question that in the psalmist’s eyes Solomon acts rather than merely talking.

The reminder of the psalm expresses a wish that under the king’s effective leadership, the kingdom will prosper economically, which in this society is that it prospers agriculturally:
May there be an abundance of grain in the land,
on the mountaintops.

May his fruit rustle like Lebanon,
and may they sprout from the town like grass on the land. 

This image of never-ceasing fecundity also applies to the king himself:
May his name be forever.
As long as the sun may his name bear seed.
May all nations be blessed through him, call him happy. 

As we know, this wish on the part of the psalmist has indeed come true. Even today, Solomon is celebrated as the wisest of kings and leaders.

This is the end of the psalm proper. The final verses are a general benediction for the conclusion of this, the second book of Psalms—and a benediction that would be wonderful to hear at the end of worship:
Blessed is the Lord God, Israel’s God, performing wonders alone.
And blessed is His glory forever, and may His glory fill all the earth.
Amen and amen.

Numbers 23: Hewing to the word of God, Balaam tells king Balak, “Build me seven altars here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me.” (1) Balaam, who seems to have the same direct access to God as Moses, goes and again speaks to God, “I have arranged the seven altars, and have offered a bull and a ram on each altar.” (4) God replies, “Return to Balak, and this is what you must say.” (5).

The words God has put in Balaam’s mouth is an oracle or song of blessing on Israel. The angry king shouts, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but now you have done nothing but bless them.” (11) Balaam’s answer is succinct: “Must I not take care to say what the Lord puts into my mouth?” (12)—something to which Balak had already assented.

Balak, thinking that a different location will change the outcome, takes Balaam to “the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah.” (14) Another seven altars are built; another seven bulls and rams are sacrificed. Balak asks Balaam, “What has the Lord said?” (17). This time (the “second oracle”) pronounces an even more distinct blessing on Israel:
     “Look, a people rising up like a lioness,
        and rousing itself like a lion!
       It does not lie down until it has eaten the prey
        and drunk the blood of the slain.” (24)

An extremely frustrated Balak thinks the third time will be the charm and tells Balaam, “Come now, I will take you to another place; perhaps it will please God that you may curse them for me from there.” (27) We’ll see about that.

Balaam sets the standard for the prophets yet to come to Israel: they speak what God has put in their mouth. I think our authors are using Balaam’s example here to remind Israel that like Balak, they cannot force a desired outcome and expect God’s blessing. Since they are speaking for God, like Balaam they must say what God has told them. Prophets will not do or say what we want them to. Just as God will not necessarily respond or act in the way we want him to when we pray.

Mark 16:1–13: The women continue to be the central actors in the Mark’s recounting of the death and resurrection of Jesus: “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.” (1). Mark has already told us they know where the tomb is, but it occurs to them that their mission may be hampered by the large stone they knew covered the tomb’s entrance: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (3). Happily, they arrive at the tomb and discover the stone has already been rolled back.

There’s a “young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side” (5) who utters the most startling and amazing statement in all of human history: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.” (6)

The young angel then tells them to tell Peter to meet the resurrected Jesus in Galilee. But what they have just witnessed and heard is far more terrifying than joyful, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.” (8a). Mark completely understands how human nature would react: “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (8b).  Which I think is a more psychologically realistic picture than the happy reunions that we read about in the other gospels. Mark could easily have a PhD in psychology.

In fact, in Mark’s traditional ending, we don’t even get to see Jesus. We only see the empty tomb.  Mark’s “shorter ending” ends his narrative with the abruptness of his reportorial style: “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Which is Mark’s rather cryptic take on the Great Commission. The Good News is the resurrected Jesus. Mark is telling us that the good news of the resurrection is sufficient. For Mark the details of who he saw and what he said after this amazing event are irrelevant.

Obviously, this rather anticlimactic ending bothered somebody somewhere, for we now have “the longer ending of Mark,” which provides a some more details. Again, the women—and the cause of much speculation about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene—are at the center of the story: “he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons.” (9) But even when Mary carries the news to the men, “when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.” (11)

This theme of disbelief at the news is driven home further, as Mark’s longer ending gives his a brief take on the Road to Emmaus episode described in far greater detail in Luke: “After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country.” (12). But again, the news is greeted only with skepticism: “And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.” (13)

It’s clear to me that Mark is writing to a community that was pretty skeptical about this whole Easter thing. I think he’s showing them (and us) that skepticism is perfectly OK: it is the most natural reaction of all to an event that was—and remains—the most incredible story ever told. Faith, Mark is telling me, anyway, includes skepticism. If the disciples didn’t believe at first, then why should we believe at first? Faith is a never-ending process, not a static state.


Psalm 72:1–11; Numbers 22:7–41; Mark 15:33–47

Originally published 6/3/2016. Revised and updated 6/4/2018

Psalm 72:1–11: This magisterial psalm is dedicated to the most magisterial of Israel’s kings, Solomon. It opens with a wish for God to bless the king with the greatest of all kingly responsibilities—judgement and greatest of all kingly qualities—righteousness:
God, grant Your judgements to the king
and Your righteousness to the the king’s son.

Like God himself, these are the king’s first duties:
May he judge Your people righteously
and Your lowly ones justice.

As always, it is the lowly poor who are most deserving of fair judgement, because in reality it is they who doubtless receive it least.

Our psalmist hammers home this crucial point, making it clear that this is Solomon’s greatest and most solemn duty, this plea for justice for the lowly is repeated with even greater intensity two verses later:
May he bring justice to the lowly of the people,
     may he rescue the sons of the needy
      and crush the oppressor.” (4)

Notice that the issue is not crushing the king’s personal enemies as we read in so many other psalms, but it is to “crush the oppressor,” the enemy of all the people, buts especially the poor and downtrodden. Of course the ugly irony here is that too often in Israel’s checkered history that it was the king himself who became the oppressor.

Turning to the king himself, our poet wishes Solomon kingly longevity using what has become over-used hyperbole:
May they fear you as long as the sun
and as long as the moon, generations untold.

The grandeur of this psalm is expressed through its similes and metaphors. The first is comparing the king to the beneficence of nature: “May he come down like rain on new-mown grass,/ like showers that moisten the earth.” (6).

This is followed by the desire that this beneficence at the top propagates and affects the entire nation just as much as the king:
May the just man flourish in his days—
and abundant peace till till the moon is no more.

This extravagant sweep for the king to become almost god-like is then expressed in geographic metaphor, first from east to west: “And may he hold sway from sea to sea” (8a)

And then all the way northeast to the Euphrates and beyond: “from the River to the ends of the earth,” (8b). Then to the south, “Before him may the desert-folk kneel,/ and his enemies lick the dust.” (9)  Then to the west along the Mediterranean, including its islands: “May kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute.” (10a) Then swinging south again, “may kings of Sheba and Siba bow to him,/ offer vassal gifts.”  (10b)

Finally, to make sure no king or tribal leader was left out of this catalog of those showing obeisance to Solomon, our poet ends this section with a grand sweep of inclusivity: “And may all kings bow to him,/ all nations serve him.” (11)

Numbers 22:7–41: The “elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand; and they came to Balaam,” (7) who is the person they want to contract with to curse Israel. Balaam wisely stalls them, inviting them to “Stay here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, just as theLord speaks to me.” (8) Balaam does not hesitate to tell them that he has a direct line to God. Such divination is forbidden within Israel, but our authors are telling us (1) it was widely used by other tribes and nations, and (2) rather than God disapproving of it; he apparnetly participates in this sort of prophecy.

God is crystal clear to Balaam:“You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” (12) Balaam tells the Moabite representatives to go home because “the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” (14) King Balak tries again, this time sending a more impressive entourage to Balaam. The seer still hesitates, “Although Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God, to do less or more.” (18) This time, God comes to Balaam, tells him to go back to King Balak, but to carefully follow God’s instructions. So Balaam eventually goes with Balak’s officials, heading back to Moab.

Then in what appears to be a puzzling change of mind of God’s part, “God’s anger was kindled [against Balaam] because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary.” (22). Balaam’s donkey sees the angel and turns off the road. However, Balaam apparently does not see the angel and strikes the donkey for his stubbornness. By the third time it sees the angel blocking its path, the donkey simply lays down in the middle of the road. Balaam angrily strikes the donkey again. Then “the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” (28)

In perhaps the most amazing part of this story, Balaam replies to the donkey as calmly if he and the donkey have had lots of previous conversations, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!” (29) Finally, Balaam sees the angel, who asks him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times?” (32). The angel tells Balaam he could have easily killed him, but has shown mercy. Rather than returning home, the angel instructs Balaam to “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.” (35)

For me, this bizarre story of a talking donkey is probably apocryphal, but it carries a crucially important message. God asks for obedience and his demands can come from any source at any time. At another level, Balaam and the donkey are a metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel, which makes the symbolism of the stubborn donkey feel highly appropriate.

Mark 15:33–47: In what Mark clearly describes as a portentous sign, the earth becomes dark at noon—symbolic of the life slipping away from Jesus. Three hours later, Jesus recites the opening line of Psalm 22 in Aramaic. Bystanders mistakenly think Jesus is calling for Elijah, which suggests to me that people didn’t understand what Jesus was saying in death as much as they misunderstood what he was saying in life. One final agonizing scream and Jesus dies. Simultaneously, Mark reports, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” (38) For Mark this event signifies the conclusion of the Old Covenant between God and the Jews. The Holy of Holies is exposed to the view every Jew, signifying, I think, that every Jew could now approach God through Jesus. The old temple order is no more. Except that the temple authorities certainly weren’t aware of that yet.

We must never forget that Mark is the master of juxtaposition and the very next sentence is the centurion’s statement,“Truly this man was God’s Son!” (39) which signifies to me that Jesus is now available to every Gentile as well as every Jew. In two sentences, Mark tells us the old order is finished and that a brand new thread of history has begun with Jesus is the center of the Jewish and Gentile universe.

Mark identifies two women standing off in the distance, “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.” (40) All the men, notably the disciples, seem to be absent. An observation that is reenforced by Mark’s statement that “there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”  (41) Which forces me to ask, if Mark tells us that the women were present at this crucial moment, but the men apparently absent, why have women been subjugated in the church in the ensuing 2000 years? I suppose we have the strongly-opinionated apostle Paul to thank for that.

Mark introduces us to “Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, [who] went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” (43) We will forever wonder that if Joseph of A was an ally of Jesus, who was willing to go “boldly” to Pilate, why does he only appear on the scene after Jesus’ death? Was he absent when the Sanhedrin tried Jesus? Or like the centurion, did he only really “get” who Jesus was at the moment Jesus died? For me, that makes Joseph representative of all of us. We tend to not understand who Jesus really is until it is virtually too late.

A small detail I’d not noticed before: “Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph.” (44, 45) We presume this is the same centurion whose life has doubtless been transformed when he saw Jesus die. 

And another detail: “Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.” (46) This confirms for me that Jesus truly died naked and alone seemingly forsaken by everyone. But Joseph shows respect and mercy, bringing dignity to the dead body of Jesus at this dark, dark moment.

With only the slightest hint that something may be afoot, Mark notes that “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.” (47) The story that seems to  its participants to have concluded is indeed not yet over.


Psalm 71:18b–24; Numbers 21:10–22:6; Mark 15:21–32

Originally published 6/2/2016. Revised and updated 6/2/2018

Psalm 71:18b–24: Realizing that he will not be abandoned by God, our psalmist turns to praise, promising to witness God’s power to all now and in the future:
Till I tell of Your mighty arm to the next generation,
to all those who will come, Your power.

This is a clear message to us that it is our responsibility to raise our children in a faith in God. When they come of age, they will make their own decisions about their faith, but at least we have given them a context and example of what faith in God is about. The psalmist continues in the same worshipful vein looking upward to heaven:
and Your bounty, O God to the heights,
as You have done great things.
” (19a).

Then he asks the question we all must ask and answer, “O God, who is like You?” (19b) Either we accept God as God, or we substitute other things or other philosophies as our small-g gods. In today’s culture we see more and more people saying that God is just one among many gods, and that whatever—or whoever— satisfies us spiritually is just fine. Alas, it is an ultimately empty path that diminishes their own being.

However, in his effusive praise, the psalmist seems to ascribe the difficulties he has experienced to God’s actions: As You surfeited me with great and dire distress, (20a) Is the psalmist really saying that God “surfeited,” i.e., created more than amply, the difficulties he experienced or did God merely allow them to happen? If we consult Job, God seems to allow, but does not create, the bad things that happen to us. But I question even that interpretation. I suggest that there is sufficient evil and fallenness in the world that bad things happen without God needing to creating them. Job notwithstanding, God is love, not manipulator. But the eternal question, why does God allow evil, is ever-present.

Nevertheless, for the psalmist, his troubles lie in the past as he speaks with assurance that God has rescued him once again. And God will not just rescue him, not just bring him succor, but through these trials make him a better man than before:
You will once more give me life,
and from earth’s depths once more bring me up
You will multiply my greatness
and turn round and comfort me.
”  (20b, 21)

There is not only psychological healing (“multiply my greatness”) but God is ever the comforter when we have been pushed down by circumstance or by others. Would that I turn more frequently to God for comfort. As the psalmist knows, God is always there, offering exactly that.

The psalm’s coda is pure, grateful worship:
And so I shall acclaim You with the lute.
—Your truth, my God./ Let me hymn with the lyre,
Israel’s Holy One
.  (22)

He will not only “sing glad song when I hymn to You,” but he will speak and witness to others as well:
My tongue, too, all say long
will murmur Your bounty
. (23)

This should be our natural response as well when we reflect on how many times God has rescued us down through our years.

The psalm closes by noting that in the same way he asked at the opening verse, [“Let me never be shamed“], except it is now his enemies who will experience that shame:
For they are shamed, for they are disgraced,
those who sought my harm
. (24)

Once again, we do not take action to shame or hurt our enemies; it is God who will see that they will bring that shame down upon themselves.

Numbers 21:10–22:6: Back in Sunday School I always had the impression that Israel’s desert wanderings were a lonely enterprise without much, if any, contact with other tribe and nations. But as we read today there was lots of interaction, much of it not very pretty.

Our authors are very much in travelogue mode as they describe the wanderings of the Israelites from Oboth to “lye-abarim, in the wilderness bordering Moab toward the sunrise. From there they set out, and camped in the Wadi Zered.” (21:11,12) Then on to Arnon on the boundary of Moab. Our authors then cite another source, “the Book of the Wars,” to describe their further journeys to Beer—”that is the well of which the Lord said to Moses, “Gather the people together, and I will give them water.” (16), where the Israelites pause to sing. Then ever onward: “Mattanah to Nahaliel, from Nahaliel to Bamoth, and from Bamoth to the valley lying in the region of Moab by the top of Pisgah that overlooks the wasteland.” (21: 19, 20)

Problems inevitably arise when Israel wishes to cross some other nation’s territory. As he had done with the king of Edom, Moses sends emissaries to the King Sihon of the Amorites seeking permission to cross, promising, “we will not turn aside into field or vineyard; we will not drink the water of any well; we will go by the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” (22)

But King Sihon not only refuses permission but decides to battle Israel in the wilderness of Jahaz. Israel is victorious in its first battle, and then all of a sudden we have Israel settling in the former Amorite territory: “Israel took all these towns, and Israel settled in all the towns of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages.” (21: 25) These victories leads to a song commemorating the battles:
Woe to you, O Moab!
    You are undone, O people of Chemosh!
He has made his sons fugitives,
    and his daughters captives,
    to an Amorite king, Sihon.
So their posterity perished
    from Heshbon[f] to Dibon,
    and we laid waste until fire spread to Medeba.” (21:29, 30)

So I have to ask: is Israel still living in tents, able to pick up and move, or has a substantial portion of the people taken up permanent residence in the former Amorite territory? This apparent conundrum does not seem to bother our authors.

Israel then goes on to defeat the wonderfully-named King Og of Basan and take possession of his territory.  After battling, victories, and land possession we once again find a transient Israel “camped in the plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho.” (22:1) Word about this ravenous wandering mob that seems skilled in battle has spread and “Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel.” (22:3)

Moab’s King Balak, realizing a military defeat may be inevitable tries a new and but not very effective strategy: “He sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor at Pethor,” which is located far away on the Euphrates River, asking that king (apparently famous for his necromancy) “Come now, curse this people for me, since they are stronger than I; perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land; for I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.” (6)

We’ll see how this turns out in our next reading…

Mark 15:21–32: Mark devotes only eleven verses to Jesus’ crucifixion. Compared the the many details and emotional writing of the other Gospel writers, Mark’s reportorial style describes the numerous facts about this execution rather dispassionately. First, the Romans “compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.” (21) With these two names we encounter a reference that lies outside the gospel narrative. Alexander and Rufus apparently become missionaries in the early church.

Mark does not give us the gory details of nails or spears involved in the process of crucifixion. All that comes in the other gospels. Here he simply states, “they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.” (24) I’m guessing the casting lots was normal routine for the Roman soldiers. All the paintings and images down through the centuries depictions to the contrary, I’m sure that to add humiliation to the crucifixion, the condemned hung on the cross naked, so there was no further need for clothing.

Mark records that Jesus was “crucified between two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.” (27) but here in Mark there is no dialog among the three. Instead, he focuses on the mockery that Jesus endured, noting the sign, “King of the Jews” that was nailed into the cross. Everything that follows here is mockery and derision: “Those who passed by derided  him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (29, 30)

To make sure we get it about the Jewish religious leaders being primarily responsible for Jesus’ death, “the chief priests, along with the scribes, were were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” (31, 32a)  Even in his terseness, Mark helps us witness the smug satisfaction that doubtless was on their faces.

Mark’s main message here is the ultimately ironic mocking of the “king of the Jews.” In fact, even “Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.” (32b) Physical death occurs by crucifixion but mockery is the final degradation. And since I’m sure Jesus heard all this as he hung there dying, a type of psychological death by execration. As far as his humanity is concerned, Jesus can be brought no lower than this. It is Mark’s stark picture of suffering and death that reminds us that Jesus suffered as no other human ever has.

Psalm 70; Numbers 18:1–24; Mark 14:53–65

 Originally published 5/29/2016. Revised and updated 5/30/2018

Psalm 70: This short but powerful David psalm of supplication communicates real urgency, creating the feeling as if it were uttered while on the run:
God, to save me,
Lord, to my help, hasten!

Wasting no time in lengthy introductions our out-of-breath psalmist gets right to the issue at hand, asking God to cause his enemies to suffer as he has suffered:
May those who seek my life be shamed and reviled.
May they fall back and be disgraced,
who desire my harm.

We have ask frequently in light of Jesus’ words about loving our enemies about the “appropriateness” of the psalmist to ask for bad things to happen to one’s those who try to do us harm. Again, I suggest that these psalms serve a vital psychological purpose in speaking our darkest desires and secrets—and God is the one to whom we can safely speak with out fear of retribution.

The psalmist continues in the same vein with an arresting metaphor of reversal—that those who oppress will themselves turn back to God:
Let them turn back on the heels of their shame,
who say, ‘Hurrah, Hurrah!'”

And rather than saying ‘Hurrah,’ and be happy at the plight of the oppressed, those who trust in God will
…seek You
[and] exult and rejoice,
and may always say ‘God is great!’ 

Once again, speech is paramount. Will we wish evil on our enemies, saying ‘Hurrah’ at their failure? Or will we ask God that they recognize the error of their ways, repent and join the righteous, exulting and rejoicing, knowing that God is indeed protecting us? That no matter how fallen we may be the hope of repentance applies to every person.

Our poet concludes with the same sense of urgency that opened the psalm, recognizing that all of us need God’s help urgently:
As for me, I am lowly and needy.
God, O hasten to me!
…Lord do not delay.
 (6, 7)

The question for me is, do I recognize that I too am lowly and needy and cannot accomplish anything without God’s help. And that I need to turn on the heels of my shame and embrace God’s—and Jesus’—love.

Numbers 18:1–24: Our priestly authors describe the final steps in straightening out who has priestly responsibility and who does not. Interestingly, here God is speaking directly to Aaron rather than his usual pipeline, Moses. God’s command could not be clearer to Aaron: “You and your sons and your ancestral house with you shall bear responsibility for offenses connected with the sanctuary, while you and your sons alone shall bear responsibility for offenses connected with the priesthood.” (1)  Notice how God differentiates between the sanctuary [the tabernacle, and later, the temple] and the priesthood itself.

Now that the issue of Aaron and his sons and successors is cleared up, God commissions the entire tribe of Levi to “serve you while you and your sons with you are in front of the tent of the covenant.” (2) Before now, I have not really noticed the distinction between the priesthood, which is the descendants of Aaron, and the Levites, who “shall perform duties for you and for the whole tent.” (3) God makes it clear that “It is I who now take your brother Levites from among the Israelites; they are now yours as a gift, dedicated to the Lord, to perform the service of the tent of meeting.” (6) Since this command is from God, this is non-negotiable.

But wait! There’s more. God announces to Aaron that all of the offerings and sacrifices made in the tabernacle “shall be yours from the most holy things, reserved from the fire: every offering of theirs that they render to me as a most holy thing, whether grain offering, sin offering, or guilt offering, shall belong to you and your sons.” (9)

We can really read between the lines here as the priestly authors of this book make it clear that the privileges they enjoy were ordained by God himself, “I have given to you, together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due, whatever is set aside from the gifts of all the elevation offerings of the Israelites; everyone who is clean in your house may eat them.” (11) In fact, it’s even better than that, as “all the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain, the choice produce that they give to the Lord, I have given to you.” (12)

Moreover, the priests have first claim on all first-born creatures—human and animal—are theirs and theirs alone. Unclean animals may be redeemed to their original owners by paying 5 shekels. But “the firstborn of a cow, or the firstborn of a sheep, or the firstborn of a goat, you shall not redeem; they are holy.” (17) They are sacrificed on the altar with the flesh of the animal going to the priests. I believe our authors assert all this in order to ensure that their Aaronic descendants retain their priestly offices in Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity

Nevertheless, there’s a quid pro quo here. Priests and Levites may not own land: “You shall have no allotment in their land, nor shall you have any share among them.” (20)

Now that this has been straightened out following the Korah and Co. disaster, “From now on the Israelites shall no longer approach the tent of meeting, or else they will incur guilt and die.” (22) In short, the priests stand in for everyone else. No one can approach the tabernacle, much less God if they are not a Aaronic priest. And it is not until Jesus abrogates the terms of this old covenant between God and Israel that anyone can approach God without going through a priest. But as the author of Hebrews points out, Jesus, being of the order of Melchizedek, outranks and neutralizes the Aaronic priesthood, so that all of us may approach God through Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest.

Mark 14:53–65: Jesus comes before the Sanhedrin: “the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled.” (53) Peter, lurking in the background, eavesdrops and becomes the mechanism by which we know what happened at this kangaroo court. [This is also one of the primary reasons why the gospel of Mark is traditionally thought to be the testimony of Peter.]  The priests call several witnesses, but they all give either false or contradictory testimony. There is no “smoking gun” on which they can convict Jesus.

Finally in frustration, the high priest asks Jesus to testify, demanding, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” (60) Jesus remains silent until the high priest asks the all-important question that is the central theme of this gospel: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (61). And at this, Jesus finally speaks the simple two-word answer, “I am.” And then he goes on to prophesy,
‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’”

This quote from Daniel 7 is clearly the frosting on the blasphemy cake as Jesus asserts his co-equality with God.

The high priest rips his clothes and shouts, “You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” (64). The others agree enthusiastically and “condemned him as deserving death.” (64) Notice the phrase, “deserving death.” This is because the priests lacked the authority to impose capital punishment. As we will see, this requires the Romans. But in their intense hatred and probably frustration that they could not kill Jesus on the spot, “Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!”” (65) But as always, the priestly authorities keep their hands clean as it is the temple police who begin to beat Jesus.

Mark’s clear message is that the Jews have rejected their messiah. There’s no question that by the time this gospel was written down, there was widespread belief that it was the Jews who were responsible for Jesus death. This exchange in the Sanhedrin is the proof, although more proof is to follow. Alas, this proof resulted in Christendom’s excuse to oppress or kill the Jews right down until the 20th century.

Psalm 69:30–36; Numbers 16:28–17:13; Mark 14:43–52

 Originally published 5/28/2016. Revised and updated 5/29/2018

Psalm 69:30–36: Verse 30 is the turning point of this psalm as our psalmist describes his present state but also his confidence that God will eventually act:
But I am lowly and hurting.
Your rescue, O lord, will protect me.

When we are brought low and feel oppressed on all sides, it is this honest acknowledgement of humility [“lowly”] and pain that strips away all pretense. We stand metaphorically naked before God, knowing that only he can save and protect us. When it comes to true healing, all the powers and attractions of this world are for naught.

With this realization that God will indeed protect him, our psalmist turns to worship as an expression of his deep gratitude to God. Moreover, this worship must be superior to any sacrifice at the temple:
Let me praise God’s name in song,
and let me extol Him in thanksgiving.

And let it be better to the Lord than oxen
than a horned bull with its hooves. (31, 32)

He then realizes that he is not the only hurting person and that he has joined a worshipping congregation, all of whom know that their only hope of rescue is from God:
The lowly have seen and rejoiced,
those who seek God, let their hearts be strong.
” (33)

Thanksgiving and worship brings with it the confidence that God has indeed heard his—and our— desperate but heartfelt prayers:
For the Lord listens to the needy,
and His captives He has not despised
. (34)

God does not despise our failed selves; he accepts—and loves—us in our fallen state. And therefore we worship in gratitude:
Let heaven and earth extol Him,
the seas and all that stirs within them
. (35)

This long psalm concludes on a note that Israel one day will be restored, and that God will rescue not just the psalmist but an entire nation:
For God will rescue Zion
and rebuild the towns of Judea,
and they will dwell there and possess it.

And of course we know that through Jesus Christ, God has rescued the entire world. The reality of Christ’s salvation comes to us only we acknowledge that we are lowly and hurting, knowing we cannot rescue ourselves. Alas, most of the world seems bent on ignoring this wonderful promise as it attempts to rescue itself without God’s help.

Numbers 16:28–17:13: As the families of the three rebels stand before their tents, Moses presents a challenge to tells the doubting Israelites. If the people standing there “die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the Lord has not sent me.” (16:29) But “if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them,… then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.” (30) Which of course is exactly what happens as “the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.” (33) And, by the way, “fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense.” (35) In short, do not question Moses’ authority or try to take over, because then you are acting directly against God, who will efficiently destroy you.

God tells Moses to tell Eleazar to take the 250 censers left on the altar and construct a bronze covering for the altar—”a reminder to the Israelites that no outsider, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, shall approach to offer incense before the Lord.” (40) Call me a cynic, but I think the priestly authors of Numbers, whose ancestor is Aaron, use this horrific story to reassert their authority as the only legitimate priests of Israel/ Judah.

The fates of the three families and the 250 other leaders do not inspire reverence or repentance among the Israelites, and they “rebelled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the Lord.” (41) At this, God is again angry to the point of annihilating Israel, and actually starts killing them off via a plague. Aaron and Moses rush to put incense on the censers and bring them out to the congregation of Israelites “where the plague had already begun among the people. He put on the incense, and made atonement for the people.” (47) Moses was able to stop God’s plague, but only after 14,700 people died.

What are we make of a God who seems more the adolescent while Moses seems to be the adult in the room? My personal sense is that our authors are going to every length to show Moses as the father of their country; the one who held things together, standing between an angry God and a stubborn people. Frankly, I hope this entire story is apocryphal.

The question of authority and who’s in charge still hangs in the air. God instructs Moses to “get twelve staffs from them, one for each ancestral house,…Write each man’s name on his staff, and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi.” (16:2,3) God then announces that “the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout; thus I will put a stop to the complaints of the Israelites that they continually make against you.” (5) Moses puts the staffs inside the tabernacle and lo and behold, “on the next day, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted. It put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds.” (16:8) No surprise here.

Aaron’s priestly authority is clearly established, and God announces to Moses that the staffs are “to be kept as a warning to rebels, so that you may make an end of their complaints against me, or else they will die.” (16:10).

Nevertheless, the complaints of the hoi polloi did not cease. Not only do the Israelites see themselves lost and perishing in the desert, but they have concluded that “Everyone who approaches the tabernacle of the Lord will die. Are we all to perish?” (16:13) Frankly, that seems to me to be an entirely reasonable question. Were I an Israelite I would certainly feel that the God with whom I’ve cast my fate is capricious and even the holiest place of worship—the tabernacle—has now become a place of death.

Mark 14:43–52: Judas arrives at Gethsemane, backed up by an armed “crowd with swords and clubs.” Mark identifies that they came “from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” (43) so we know instantly who’s behind the arrest. Judas, having prearranged the sign, kisses Jesus, who is grabbed and arrested. Mark doesn’t tell us who, but “one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.” (47). Interestingly, in this earliest of the gospels, Jesus does not appear to heal the victim of the unidentified disciple’s attempt to protect Jesus. Rather, Jesus seems insulted, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?” (48) and clearly telling Judas and the temple authorities that this secret arrest is a cowardly act, “Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me.” (49).  Of course Jesus knows full well why he wasn’t arrested. For me, these statements also make it clear that Jesus is now fully in control of events. The weeping Jesus, who was praying desperately just a short while ago, is no more. He has received his answer from God and knows what he must do and what he is about. And he will do it deliberately with head held high.

Then, one of the most tragic verses in the gospel: “All of them deserted him and fled.” (50). Jesus was completely alone.

There’s an intriguing aside not really relevant to the action: “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” (51, 52) Tradition holds that this was Mark himself, but the gospel writer Mark wrote some 60 years later. But why was he wearing only a linen cloth? Was he out for a run early in the morning? We will never know, but one thing is clear: the events he witnessed were portentous and the young man gave no thought to his lack of clothing as he ran off naked into the early morning darkness.

Psalm 69:22–29; Numbers 15:32–16:27; Mark 14:32–42

 Originally published 5/27/2016. Revised and updated 5/28/2018

Psalm 69:22–29: In these verses, we can look directly into the psalmist’s heart as he spills his innermost thoughts and feelings onto the page. He writes how he has not found comfort. In fact, those who were supposed to be his comfort became his torturers:
They gave for my nourishment wormwood,
and for my thirst made me drink vinegar.

At first, the latter phrase makes us think of the sponge given to Jesus while he was on the cross. However, I think that’s an over-interpretation of what is being written here. These verses have much more to do with one man’s hurt and anger than a theological prophecy.

Here, feelings of abandonment cause our poet to write with strongest possible vitriol (at least in the context of a psalm!) against his enemies as he curses them,
May their table before them become a trap,
and their allies a snare.

Not finished with his curse, he prays that they will also experience blindness and palsy:

May their eyes grow too dark to see,
make their loins perpetually shake.

His anger and desire for vengeance overbrimming, he begs God to acton his behalf:
Pour out on them Your wrath,
and Your blazing fury overtake them.

He wishes not only that God will act against these enemies, but that their families and friends be ruined as well:
May their encampment be laid be laid waste,
and in their tents may no one dwell. 

As if this were not enough, he prays that God will destroy them psychologically, “Add guilt upon their guilt” (28a) and then the worst punishment of all, to be eternally separated from God altogether—which is what we actually mean, I think, when we tell someone to go to hell:
…let them have no part in Your bounty.
Let them be wiped from the book of life,
and among the righteous let them not be written.
” (28b, 29)

So what do we do with these verses, which are definitely antithetical to Jesus’ command that we are to love our enemies? My own sense is that the psalmist’s relationship with God is so intense and real that he knows that he can say anything to God in his deepest anger, including even curses against others. These verses are a primal scream, not deep theology. They also tell me that we can bring our hurts, anger, disappointment, and yes, even our curses before God. God can take it. And having spewed forth our deepest anger in prayer, we become psychologically and emotionally cleansed. How much better it is to curse before God in prayer than to curse before our family and neighbors.

Numbers 15:32–16:27: It’s one thing to read about the harsh commands that God has communicated to Israel; it’s quite another to read of a man being stoned to death because he was gathering sticks on the Sabbath. But there’s no getting around the fact: “the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.”  (15:35) This is a manifestation of the Old Testament God that so distresses us. How can a God of mercy command death for something as seemingly trivial as gathering sticks outside the camp? Is it just to maintain order among an unruly crowd of 600,000 people camped in the desert? Or is it to engender unquestioning loyalty to a jealous God? I have no answer here.

In what at first seems almost humorous non sequitur, God commands Moses to “Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner.” (15:38) The fringe—which lives on today in Jewish prayer shawls— is a simple memory prompt: “you have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes.” (15:39) But when we realize that the authors have placed this command immediately following the story of the man being stoned to death in order to address the Israelite’s (and our) weakness of intentional or unintentional forgetting the all-consuming importance of God’s commandments. And above all to remember that “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.” (15:41) Notice the repetition of “I am the Lord your God.” This is the framework in which every thought and action of every Israelite must occur.

Well, it had to happen. The Israelites have just been sentenced to 40 more years in the wilderness and now they’ve had to stone someone to death for committing the seemingly trivial act of gathering sticks. Moses is still their leader and it’s clear to some that it’s time for new leadership. Three members of the tribe of Reuben—Korah, Dathan, and Abiram— decide it’s time for a coup d’etat. And they gather a cohort of 250 men, “leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men,” (16:2) and confront Moses and Aaron.

Korah’s complaint  to Moses seems straightforward: “why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (16:3) Moses sends for Dathan and Abiram, who refuse to come, sending him a message, “Is it too little that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also lord it over us?” (16:13)

Moses is understandably angry and calls their bluff, telling them to take lit censers put incense on them and stand in front of the tabernacle. So 250 men do this. Unsurprisingly God is displeased at this rebellion and issues his usual edict, saying to Moses and Aaron: “Separate yourselves from this congregation, so that I may consume them in a moment.” (21) And once again, Moses intercedes, using the logic that “shall one person sin and you become angry with the whole congregation?” (22) God appears to relent, but tells everyone to “get away from the dwellings of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.” (24). The reading closes with the families of the three standing “at the entrance of their tents, together with their wives, their children, and their little ones.” (27). One is left with the feeling that something bad is about to happen…

This is also why I think we have to read these passages as actual history. Why would our authors make up this detail if it were mere legend? And needless to say, it constitutes a clear warning to their readers and listeners that God is no friend of those who would rebel against good order.

Mark 14:32–42: The disciples and Jesus repair to Gethsemane. Jesus instructs the inner three—James, John and Peter— to come with him. And here, for the first time in the gospels, we see Jesus “distressed and agitated” (33) rather than his usual aura of serene equanimity. He tells the three, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” (34), bearing in mind that just before the Passover dinner he has told his disciples to remain alert and awake and then has told them he will be betrayed. Why of all times in the three years an what is the culmination of his ministry do the disciples fall asleep now? Was it the wine at dinner? Or is something deeper going on here?

In just a few words, we sense Jesus’ great distress and realize that he is indeed 100% human as “he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.” (35). He prays as fervently as we have ever heard him, calling his father the diminutive and familiar, “Abba.” We hear Jesus’ prayer, but as usual, do not hear God’s response. Nevertheless, Jesus must have found some succor and he returns from praying only to find the disciples asleep.

But Jesus does not chastise them beyond asking Peter rhetorically, “Could you not keep awake one hour?” (37) Jesus suggests that they remain awake but also acknowledges, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (38). This is one of those places where we realize that Jesus knows us and our weaknesses all too well. Our hearts and minds may be in the right place, but sometimes we simply cannot follow Jesus as well as we would like or intend. This same thing happens two more times: Jesus goes to pray and returns to find the disciples asleep.  Finally, we hear his exasperation, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough!” (41) Jesus tells them to wake up because “the hour has come.” And Jesus knows too well what is about to happen. But I suspect he also knows that the disciples will remain in denial. They cannot possibly believe he is about to be betrayed.

Of course Mark knows that his community—and us—who remain in denial about many aspects of Jesus as well. But we would prefer to sleep.

Psalm 69:14–22; Numbers 15:1–31; Mark 14:12–31

Originally published 5/26/2016. Revised and updated 5/26/2018

Psalm 69:14–22: As he is being harassed and taunted on every side, our psalmist turns to God, almost flatteringly, humbly asking God to help it when it’s convenient:
O Lord, come in a favorable hour.
God, as befits Your great kindness,
answer me with Your steadfast rescue. 

This is a beautiful prayer for any of us who find us bogged down, whether by opponents or even the diseases and weaknesses of our own bodies.

He returns to the metaphor of drowning, this time appealing to God with more desperation:
Save me from the mire, that I not drown.
Let me be saved from my foes and from the watery depths.
Let the waters’ current not sweep me away
and let not the deep swallow me
. (15, 16)

These two metaphors —that we are stuck in the mire and that we not be swept away by the current—describe two awful states. For me, the mire represents being stuck in our own sinfulness, while the current symbolizes succumbing to the temptation to give in and join the culture as it hurtles toward its inevitable doom. Only God can rescue us from both.

Our psalmist now turns fully to God, throwing himself completely on God’s kindness and compassion, but also hoping that God will respond quickly:
Hide not Your face from Your servant,
for I am in straits. Hurry, answer me
. (18)

Yes, like the psalmist, we are completely free to ask God to act in our time not just his. Of course, we have no guarantee that God will do so. In any event, he writes, God is the only possible escape from his enemies:
Come near me, redeem me.
because of my enemies, ransom me
. (19).

God—and for us Christians, Jesus—is our only possible salvation. We cannot find it in other people, in institutions, nor in the culture at large. But the psalmist takes the first step by recognizing exactly who he is—a sinner. We, too, must recognize that God knows who we are and what we have done even better than we:
It is You who know my reproach,
and my shame and disgrace before all my foes
. (20)

It’s crucial that we realize how sin has brought us down and is destroying our life and we cannot find comfort, much less redemption outside of God. Without God’s absolution our state will only grow more desperate to the point of physical breakdown:
Reproach breaks my heart, I grow ill;
I hope for consolation, and there is none,
and for comforters, and do not find them

Numbers 15:1–31: We come to an odd intermezzo in the dramatic action that has resulted in the Israelites being consigned to the desert for the next forty years. It feels almost like a non sequitur—perhaps an insertion by yet another author: a lengthy disquisition on the types of sacrifices they are to offer when they finally arrive in Canaan some forty years hence: “When you come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving you, and you make an offering by fire to the Lord from the herd or from the flock—whether a burnt offering or a sacrifice, to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering or at your appointed festivals—to make a pleasing odor for the Lord.” (2, 3) In that case, then “whoever presents such an offering to the Lord shall present also a grain offering, one-tenth of an ephah of choice flour, mixed with one-fourth of a hin of oil.” (4)

These commands regarding sacrifices apply to every Israelite: “Every native Israelite shall do these things in this way, in presenting an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the Lord.” (13) But perhaps more interestingly, and what I believe is a clear indication that while God is has a specific covenant Israel, he is also the God of all humankind, “there shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the Lord.” (15). As Peter notes many centuries later in his eponymous letter, we Christians are all aliens in the land. To make his stance perfectly clear, God even repeats himself: “You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.” (16)

The focus then shifts to the rules regarding unintentional sin and again, once the proper sacrifices are made, “All the congregation of the Israelites shall be forgiven, as well as the aliens residing among them, because the whole people was involved in the error.” (26)

Humility is always required—both before God and among each other: “But whoever acts high-handedly, whether a native or an alien, affronts theLord, and shall be cut off from among the people.” (30).

The tragedy of course is that once Israel occupies Canaan, it is the aliens among them that corrupt Israel rather than God’s chosen people causing the non-Israelites to come and worship Israel’s God.

Mark 14:12–31: With his usual and remarkable skill, Mark packs grand theology and drama into this terse verses. A disciple asks where they’re going for Passover and Jesus replies, Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” (13, 14). So, how did Jesus know all this? Is it prescience, or had he somehow made prior arrangements? The business with the jar-carrying man certainly suggests something supernatural is going on since in that culture women did the water-carrying, so the sight of a man would be unusual indeed.

Seated at dinner and while everyone was still eating, Jesus drops the bomb: “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” (18), which basically ruins the rest of the meal as the disciples “began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” (19). So why choose this time to announce it? Because it is “one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.” (20) And here Mark, unlike the other gospel writers, does not tell us what happened next or if Judas even leaves. Jesus simply remarks cryptically, “woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” (21) As far as Mark is concerned, we’ll never know: was Judas in the room to hear that pronouncement of not? Mark’s spotlight remains only on Jesus and what he says.

Nevertheless, I’m going to assume that Judas left before Jesus said that because the next thing he does is institute the Eucharist. Mark hints at the sacrifice to come when Jesus says, “This is my blood of the  covenant, which is poured out for many.” (24) As indeed his death on the cross is a sacrifice for all of us down through history. He reinforces the connection between the Eucharist and his death and resurrection with the words, “I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (25). Of course there’s no way the disciples would have understood the enormous implications of this statement. Only those of us living post-Resurrection can make the connection. And now every Sunday we drink that new wine. But the question always remains: are we working in the Kingdom with Jesus?

I always thought that Jesus told only Peter that the disciple would deny his Lord, but Mark makes it clear that Jesus was being inclusive: “And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters.” (27) Which is of course exactly what happened. Peter, being Peter, fervently denies this possibility, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” (29). Jesus tells Peter about the cock crowing, but Peter persists,“Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” (31a) And again, Mark is inclusive, noting that “All of them said the same.” (31b)

Of course “all of them” includes us. The nobility of my intentions notwithstanding, I deny Jesus again and again. We all do. Mark will never let us forget that.

Psalm 69:1–13; Numbers 14; Mark 14:1–11

Originally published 5/25/2016. Revised and updated 5/25/2018

Psalm 69:1–12: Even though it’s a metaphor, this psalm of supplication opens with a harrowing description of what it must be like to be drowning and rescue has not yet come:
Rescue me, God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I have sunk in the slime of the deep,
and there is no place to stand.
I have entered the watery depths,
and the current has swept me away. (2,3)

We hear his desperate shouts and dire physical condition as he nears death:
I am exhausted from my calling out.
My throat is hoarse.
My eyes fail
from hoping for my God.
” (4)

These verses capture the sense of what it feels like to believe one has been abandoned by God right when things are most desperate. While I have not felt like a drowning man, I know what it feels like to wonder where God is. We seem to be most aware of God’s apparent absence when times are bad. When things are going well, God seems nearby—or probably more likely, we beleive we do not need God.

Our psalmist, still waiting to hear back from God, goes on to describe the reason for his predicament: his enemies are “more numerous than the hairs on my head,” (5a) And he believes he has done nothing to provoke them and that he has been accused unjustly, apparently of theft as he asks ironically, “What have I not stolen/ should I then give back?” (5b)

He asserts that God is well aware of his shortcomings—and that is not really a good reason for God to abandon him:
“God, You know my folly,
and my guilt is not hidden from You.
” (6)

But the things that distresses him most is the sense that he is bringing shame on his God-fearing community: Let not those who hope for You be shamed through me. (7)

It is this shame that makes this psalm so relevant to us today about how we also feel tied down by our shame. However, this shame seems to arise from the psalmist’s belief in God, and it is his faith in God that he finds himself in dire straits:
Because for You I have borne reproach,
disgrace has covered my face.

In an eerie presaging of what Jesus said about family relationships and who is our mother or our brothers, our psalmist laments that
Estranged I have been from my brothers,
and an alien from my mother’s sons.

The reason for the estrangement is really quite simple. He has devoted his entire time and attention to God’s work, neglecting important human relationships:
For the zeal of Your house has consumed me,
the reproach of Your reproachers has fallen on me
. (10)

As a result he is reduced to a shadow of his former being:
And in fasting I wept for my being—
it became a reproach for me.

And now he is alone, the object of derision:
I was the talk of those who sit in the gate,
the drunkards’ taunting song
. (13)

Can there be any more dire situation than to feel unjustly accused, abandoned by our family, the subject of taunting, and overarching all this, feeling that one has been abandoned by a God who remains resolutely silent? This psalm is a touchstone for all who feel depressed and abandoned.

Numbers 14: On hearing the news from the spies that Canaan is occupied by giants and fierce armies, the Israelites can only “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!” (2). So, they decide, “would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (3) and actually decide to act on that question: “So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” (4) Clearly, that captain will not be Moses or Aaron.

Joshua and Caleb remonstrate, telling the people that the land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey.” (7,8)

But to accomplish this, the people cannot “rebel against the Lord.” (9) This is not the message they want to hear and “the whole congregation threatened to stone them.” (10)

God is understandably angry at this mob and threatens to disinherit the lot of them and, interestingly, begin all over again with Moses: “I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” (12) Moses again intercedes on the behalf of these stubborn people, reminding God that he should “let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying,

‘The Lord is slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression. (17, 18a)

God relents and forgives them, but adds, “ none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it.” (22, 23). Their fate is sealed; they will wander in the wilderness until the present generation that rejected the call to enter Canaan dies off.

God’s sentence is long and harsh: “According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.” (34) With but two exceptions: “Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.” (30) As for the ten spies who brought back the negative report, “ the men who brought an unfavorable report about the land died by a plague before the Lord.” (37)

A small faction decides to ignore God’s judgement and invade Canaan. Moses advises, “That will not succeed. Do not go up, for the Lord is not with you; do not let yourselves be struck down before your enemies.” (42, 43)  As Moses predicted, things do not turn out well and “the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them, pursuing them as far as Hormah.”

The lesson here is crystalline: even the best of intentions, including a show of courage, will not succeed where God has forbidden the action. This is why discernment is so crucial. Acting on emotional impulse alone—as this group did here—is the quick path to disaster.

Mark 14:1–11: By Wednesday of Holy Week, the machinery to rid themselves of this blasphemous Jesus has been set into motion as “the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.”  (1). But stealth does not work well when the city is full of Passover-goers and knowing Jesus’ popularity among the hoi polloi, the priests hold off, knowing “there may be a riot among the people.” (2)

Meanwhile, Jesus remains in the safety of Bethany, staying at the house of Simon the leper. An unnamed woman (the other gospel writers do in fact name her) suddenly appears, opens the very expensive alabaster jar of nard and pours it on Jesus’ head. Unlike the other gospel writers, Mark doesn’t tell us who complained, “ in anger, [asking] “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” (4b, 5) Jesus rebukes them, reminding them (and us) that, “you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” (7) We need to be careful in our interpretation here: Jesus is not telling them—or us—to ignore the poor, but not every gift we bring to Jesus must be sent back or sold for welfare to the poor.  In short, just as God required the first born and first fruits, our greatest gifts belong first and foremost to Jesus.

I’m intrigued by Jesus’ next statement, “She has done what she could” (8a) with an action that in effect prepares his body for burial. I think Jesus is telling us that we are to offer what we can and to do what we can. If we truly love him, then by definition we will do what we can for Jesus—whether it’s an extravagant gift or ongoing help for the poor and homeless. Jesus values whatever we can give as long as it comes from the heart, not as a resented duty.

And of course, as Jesus predicts, what this unnamed woman did for him has indeed been told and retold down through the centuries in remembrance of her.

In stark contrast while the woman extravagantly gives Jesus all she has, Judas goes to the priests and says he’ll betray Jesus. The priests are “greatly pleased, and promised to give him money.” (11) This is one of Mark’s more brutal juxtapositions. Both good and evil simultaneously exist in our fallen world. We cannot ask why God allows evil to exist without also asking why God allows good to exist.